Percussion Masterclass The Next Step

Mike Lawson • Performance • November 12, 2015

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(c) ShutterstockSteve Schick, world-class percussionist and educator, describes what we do as percussionists in such a perfectly simple way. “I think the best definition of percussion comes from its word in German, schlagzeug. Schlag means to hit, and zeug means stuff. So a percussionist is someone who hits stuff. And both of the parts of that equation are important…it’s the nature of the hitting and the quality of the stuff that every percussionist thinks about. That stands at the center of our art.”

 I couldn’t have said it any better – at our essence, it’s what we hit and how we hit it. Since most often, for the young percussionist, we don’t get to pick from a large selection of the quality of what we hit or strike instrument-wise, we must then make sure to focus as players on how we then engage with our instruments. This is the realm of technique.

 In past articles I’ve talked almost exclusively about technique and things that you can share with your percussionists to help them play better (search the archives for the November issues 2011-2014 – please reference these for many of the things that are mentioned in the rest of the article).

 Let’s take all of that information and put it into action then…the “next step.” I want to guide you through how we can directly apply it to what your students might be playing. This can be used in a variety of situations. Instead of examining every single percussion instrument, let’s focus our approach and talk about specifics with the instruments they would perform on for Solo & Ensemble. These would be the snare drum, timpani, multi-percussion, and any mallet instrument. You could then obviously apply all of this to then what they’d play on while in band, orchestra, or percussion ensemble.

 When we get to the “checklists” for each instrument group I would like to use the term “commonalities.” What I mean by this is that if you begin to observe great players you’ll find that they all do similar things. They are all unique, but you’ll begin to find these common traits that they all share. If all the wonderful players do these things, shouldn’t we all? What I list below are these very things.

 Before we begin, I need to remind us all of one thing. KEEP IT SIMPLE. Yes, there are things I do with my students that are of a very advanced level musically and technically, BUT with any percussionist we always want to start simple and work our way up. More often than not when I’m out doing clinics or masterclasses I spend a majority of my time talking about the very things we are about to discuss. Start at the foundation, make sure it’s correct, make sure your student is doing what they want to do or intend to do, then progress from there. That’s the best way to cover the most ground in the shortest amount of time with the least change. If we aren’t “hitting” (remember Schick’s quote) things well, then we won’t sound as good as we could.

 The following order will be sequential – we’ll start with a single, headed instrument and move on to the others, building upon topics and ideas as we go. I want to make sure we connect ideas from one instrument to the next so you can easily see how our approach can be utilized from one instrument to the other. Sure, there are differences, but the main concepts are universal.

 Once each checklist can be passed off on then things like dynamics, tempo interpretation at the ends of phrases, shaping of lines, et cetera, are on the table. If these are in place then much of the discussion is their musical intent and then how well they are communicating it to the listener – e.g. is the shaping getting to the audience the way they want it to. Often what we think is enough is not, therefore a slight exaggeration of our musical goal is normally appropriate.

 If you cannot pass off on each checklist then everything they are trying to do musically is built upon an inconsistent framework, ultimately limiting their musical communication with the piece. It just won’t be as connected, consistent, and smooth if they aren’t technically sound.

(c) Shutterstock Would a clarinetist sound fine if some notes just sounded different than others? Every other eighth-note was stressed more than the other? No. The phrasing then would be compromised. With percussionists the concept is the same, the difference lies in HOW we attain that evenness to our sound, ultimately our communicative ability. It’s SO easy for us to be inconsistent, but that still doesn’t make it acceptable. We have to focus on the details in order to sound our “musical” best. Wait, isn’t that just paying attention to some very basic things and we’ll sound way better? Yes. Cover the basics and a good portion of the work is done on the instrument.

Snare Drum

One of your students comes to you for help with a snare etude/piece they are preparing. Before you even watch them play the first note, you need to have several things you want to look for already on your radar. Here’s the list:

  1. Is the instrument at the proper height? On the stand correctly?
  2. Is the student’s technique symmetrical/the same from one side to the other?
  3. Are they holding the sticks the same way in each hand?
  4. Are they holding the stick at the same point on the stick?
  5. Are they moving their elbow/wrist/fingers the same way?
  6. Are they playing at the same dynamic level from side to side?
  7. Are they striking the drum in the same place, perceptively?

If you can answer “yes” to the above questions, I’m willing to bet they sound pretty consistent. Now it’s just a matter of discussing the musical elements.

 Some added information regarding #1 and #3:

1. I believe the best way for a student to find the proper height is to allow their playing element to determine that – their arms. A very simple way to do this is to have your student take a step back away from the drum or pad and relax their arms down at their sides. Make sure they are really relaxing them, allowing them to hang there for a bit with the minimum tension needed. Then, slowly, have them lift them up, bending at the elbow (not breaking their wrists), to where they think they feel comfortable, not allowing them to look at their previous height of the drum or pad (I have them put it behind them). Once they settle in on a spot I make them “air” play a couple of notes to make sure it feels good. Repeat this five or six times, making sure they relax each time for about twenty seconds before raising their arms up again. Once they find that spot, allow them to turn around and put it back on their instrument to see if any change has occurred. Some students lower a little, some stay the same, while some actually end up needing to raise the instrument slightly. My motto is that where their body tells them it’s comfortable is where they should play. This will allow the most natural movement to occur.  

 The drum needs to be on the stand so that the strainer runs along the imaginary line dividing the drum down the middle, away from the player (more in #3 below). This way when the player moves out/away from their body to play softer dynamics and back in towards the center for louder passages they are always over the snare unit. Imagine a line going from their body straight out towards their music stand – that’s the same path the strainer should line up with. This puts the snare strainer control mechanism directly in front of their body, not on the side.

3. We don’t “share” the same beating spot on a drum. We need to divide the instrument down the middle and play equidistantly away from this line on either side. I use the image of a quarter, trying to play on the edges of the quarter that’s splitting that line evenly. Also, the drum’s tightest and most resistant spot is dead center, so if I want to vibrate the head to move more air I’ll avoid the direct center. Most snare drum players go away from this area a little towards the rim away from them – how much depends on the head tension, head type being used, et cetera. Experiment with the drum to find where you get the most sound from the snare/bottom head while still retaining a nice, crisp sound. You’ll find a “zone” that will work – so make sure your student is playing there.


Yes, we have to tune them. We won’t focus on how to do that here, but please know that they need to be tuned to the correct pitches. That’s not negotiable. Beyond that, your checklist should be:

  1. Are they set up in such a way that allows the player to hit all the proper beating spots on each drum easily via a rotation of the upper body?
  2. Are they tall enough that they should sit when they play?
  3. Are they using a stroke that allows the drum to resonate and sound full? At least to start with?
  4. Are they interacting with the drums in a consistent way (once they are set up correctly)?

I can’t stress enough that pitch is primary. But once the correct pitch is attained that the above also be solid and in place. If you can answer yes, then great! Chances are, though, that at least one thing on the list isn’t as good as it could be.

Added information for these:

  1. As simple as this sounds it’s very important. I often see the timpani set up in a such a way that doesn’t allow the player to move easily between drums while playing and maintain a consistent beating spot. That beating spot is 3-4” in from the edge of the bowl, directly in front of the player. One must rotate to get this spot on each drum and since we can move each drum we need to take advantage of putting it in the right place for our playing and not the other way around.
  2. When your student puts out their hands to play where it feels good is that higher than the drum is? If it’s close then they can stand. If it’s higher then have them sit! You’ll need a stool that allows your student to spin right and left on, but often just a tall bar stool would do the trick. Be careful, though, the standard size of those wooden ones is a little short. You’ll need to look for the taller ones.
  3. In previous articles I talk about the piston or full rebound stroke. I utilize it here often to get a big, full sound. I believe if your students can do this and do it automatically without thinking about it then every other type of stroke that doesn’t come back to where it begins is very easy – it’s less work.
  4. This is a little redundant but once everything is in place, the drums are tuned, they have the proper playing height, ARE they addressing each drum in a consistent fashion? Seems simple, right? It is. But tough to do.

 Once all of these elements are in place the music making can really begin.


(c) ShutterstockI love this genre; it’s one of my favorites. It takes everything we’ve talked about so far and just adds other elements. The snare drum is one instrument, the timpani then is four or five depending on the piece, and multi can have even more instruments.

 All of the aspects talked about so far apply to this instrument grouping, e.g. playing position, can you get to everything easily –  are you consistently addressing all the instruments, are you hitting them in a consistent fashion, are you hitting them where you want to hit them, etc. This obviously becomes more difficult since we have more things to hit, but remember to keep it simple. Beyond the previously mentioned things, this is the checklist for a student doing multi-percussion:

  1. Is everything set up at a consistent height, regardless of your hardware and what it can or can’t do?
  2. If you’re having trouble mounting something how you need to have it, have you been as creative as you might need to be with how that’s done?
  3. If you have multiple types of instruments, are you getting a consistent sound not only within each grouping, but between groups?
  4. Due to how different types of instruments react to being played (skins vs. metals vs. woods) how is your balance dynamically between all of them?

Added information for these:

  1. Sometimes a piece of hardware can impede our ability to get something at the right height. Think outside the box and make it do what you want it to. An example would be if a tom stand doesn’t go high enough to match other instruments. Put the legs of the tom stand on some blocks of wood. Bongo stand not go low enough? Mount the bongos in the cradle of a concert snare stand that goes lower.
  2. This is an extension of the first point, but more specifically not just with hardware. We have to be creative sometimes with how we get things where we need them to be – think outside the box. You’re only limited to what you can come up with! What’s most important here is that the instrument ends up where you need it. Don’t settle for anything less.
  3. Make sure that you’re consistent, as with the other instruments we’ve discussed, but since there could be two or more types of instrument groups we need to make sure each is treated in a consistent manner. When we add just one other group we can actually forget about consistency altogether – throw it all out the window so to speak. It’s just one or two more types, so treat it that simply. Make sure they are addressing consistency in their unique ways for each group, e.g. you strike a drum in a different spot than you do a cymbal.
  4. This just refers to your overall dynamic balance. An example would be if the templeblocks your playing don’t speak quite as well as the small cymbals or bongos, then you are going to have to make sure to play them louder or the other less so that the overall dynamic level comes out the way you need it to. Use your ears and let them guide your decisions.

Mallet Instruments

 With mallets instruments the easiest way to view them is from the standpoint of how they are different from say a single drum. We utilize all the same things but have to apply them to this new interface. We now have multiple bars to hit, set up laterally (to our left and our right) and there are two locations or zones, one close to us and then one further away and slightly higher (except for vibraphone). The bars also aren’t as responsive as a drumhead but should be treated in the same fashion and with this we may need to engage in the stroke and the movement of the mallet a little more than we do with a stick on a drum.

 With these differences it generates this checklist:

  1. Are you moving laterally with the instrument and not staying put and just rotating your upper body?
  2. Are you hitting the bars where you want to?
  3. Are you using the stroke that you want?
  4. Are your hands moving the same way/a consistent fashion, not changing depending on where you’re hitting the instrument laterally?

Added info:

  1. “Stay behind your playing” is the phrase I use. Make sure that since the instrument is set up in a lateral way that your students address it as such – basically move right and left when you play. It will help them engage in the bars in a consistent fashion, thus allowing for a consistent sound.
  2. This one is simple. Where do you want to hit the bars? And then are they doing that?
  3. This references back to that piston stroke and that it’s more difficult since we now add to the equation lateral motion, two playing areas, a target zone on each bar where missing still gets us on the bar, and a material that doesn’t respond well. Mix that all up and you get a recipe for easily forgetting the stroke type you want to get. As with timpani, strive for a full rebound for a rich, warm tone. Altering it from there is less work and much easier.
  4. Consistency here is paramount – is your student keeping the same technique regardless of the location they are trying to get? On a drum we have only one main location we are going for and with a mallet instrument we expand that to many locations. Just because we increase the number of areas to hit doesn’t give us free reign to change our technique. Remember the golden rule – consistent sound is generated by a consistent approach.

 I want to reiterate one thing I said above…make sure your student is doing what they want to do or intend to do. We don’t normally pay close attention to small details because our sound is “fine.” It doesn’t take much to hit a drum and the sound we get is ok. Well, ok doesn’t cut it. We have to raise our bar and make sure we ARE paying attention to the small details – that’s what makes a difference in our sound – the little things. If your student knows what to do, sometimes the hardest thing you have to help them with is their execution of that very thing! I know it seems so simple but trust me, it is not. I work with it all the time. I’m amazed at how this just isn’t part of our natural approach, so you’ll need to help them with it constantly.

So what’s a great way to allow the students to see how they are doing firsthand? I’m a big believer in letting them see it for themselves. Many students have the ability to record themselves while they’re playing – every smartphone has the ability to shoot video. So have them utilize this very accessible technology. Have them perform their piece, record it for them, and then have them analyze it afterwards. Have them ask the same questions you are and then answer them. What are they doing well? What can they easily fix? What might take more work? Teach them how to analyze through this process and ultimately your teaching them how to teach themselves.

 I do this with my students daily. As I tell them, don’t take my word for it, watch the video…what do YOU see? What do you hear? It’s amazing how quickly they see things that they cannot while they are playing. They are then able to turn around, play it again, and immediately recognize the issue or issues. So force them to do it! It’s free and such a fantastic learning tool.

 A way of looking at all of this is really just getting into the mind of the percussionist. What do I think about when I approach these instruments? What am I trying to do when I play? What elements am I making sure I do while I’m making music? I ask these questions of myself while I’m playing but also of anyone that I’m working with regardless of their ability or how long they’ve been playing.

 By providing you with these examples I hope it will give you a starting point to then help your percussionists grow and become even better musicians…or “hitters” of “stuff.”

Jeff Crowell, DMAJeff Crowell, DMA, is professor of music – Percussion and Jazz at the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire’s Department of Music & Theatre Arts

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